NFL Trade Deadline & Season Opener Approaching, Here’s How the Legal Situation Affects Deshaun Watson’s Eligibility

The fate of Deshaun Watson’s NFL career is up in the air as current FBI and local police investigations are being conducted and the NFL Season opener is quickly approaching, according to Watson’s attorney.

Is Watson eligible to play? 

As of today, Deshaun Watson is eligible to play week one of the NFL Season. There are no criminal indictments or charges against him. Per NFL precedent, ongoing civil suits do not make a player ineligible to play. But if he is indicted or charged with sexual assault or a serious felony, which could (or not) happen at any time, then the NFL’s policy is to place him on the Commissioner’s exempt list.    More on that below.

The NFL is investigating the allegations against Watson. However, because there are pending criminal investigations, the NFL is avoiding any interference with those law enforcement investigations and may await the outcome of a potential criminal proceeding before completing its own internal investigation and deciding on discipline, if any. With the current FBI and Local Police investigations of Deshaun Watson, the NFL’s investigation of Watson could take “up to a year or more” depending on the outcome of the criminal investigations “to determine the possible suspension if there even is one”, according to Amy Dash’s interview on 790 Am The Ticket

Will Watson be Placed on the Exempt List? If so, When?

An individual may be put on the “Commissioner Exempt List” if formally charged with a violent crime, sexual assault, or if an NFL investigation finds sufficient credible evidence that appears to have violated a policy set forth by the NFL Conduct Committee. The paid leave will last until the completion of the NFL investigation or disposition of a criminal charge. According to LOJ Founder Amy Dash, generally the NFL will not put someone on the Commissioner’s Exempt List unless there is an actual indictment or criminal charge.  

Why are teams interested in trading for him if he is under investigation? 

NFL teams are still highly interested in having Deshaun Watson as their quarterback. Given the status of the current criminal investigation, it is impossible to know what is actually going on in those investigations that are being conducted. He is innocent until proven guilty. Therefore, teams such as the Dolphins are willing to take the risk of picking up Watson in hope that he will be able to play. In her interview with 790 Am the Ticket, Dash mentions, “Teams might feel that if he in fact is criminally charged there is a way to get out of this contract, so it would be worth it for us now to take the gamble, [teams] don’t think he will go on the exempt list unless there is a criminal charge and if there is, we can get rid of him.” However, any teams claiming they have done their due diligence into the legal situation and therefore believe it’s worth it to trade for him, are not being entirely forthcoming. There is no way to know what’s going on with his criminal investigations at the local or federal level. Therefore, their due diligence would merely be an assessment of whether it’s worth it to trade now, knowing he will likely be able to play until the NFL investigation is complete (likely months or more than a year) or a criminal charge drops (if one drops), and then try to get out of the contract if he becomes ineligible, by asserting a conduct detrimental clause or a moral clause in his contract.

What do Texans want for him? 

The Texans are not going to give up Deshaun Watson easily. The Texans organization have reportedly placed a premium on Watson meaning that teams will have to give up multiple first round draft picks to receive him. There is also a PR aspect here for teams, including the Texans because the controversy surrounding Watson is distracting to the teams and the game. Trading him may subject teams to backlash from certain people who are not giving Watson the benefit of the doubt until he can have his day in court. The premium on Watson is not the only factor playing into him being traded. In his contract, Watson has a “No Trade Clause” that allows him to veto trades to certain teams. According to rumors, Watson prefers going to the Dolphins, and is not interested in the Eagles. However, the high asking price, his uncertain future where he could be charged or suspended by the league any day and the stigma surrounding the criminal investigations make it a tough decision and a gamble for any team.  

Will Texans trade him or keep him? 

NFL 53 man roster deadlines are approaching today, August 31. The Texans organization have until 4 pm EST to decide whether they will trade Deshaun Watson. According to Dash, the Texans may feel it is worth spending the $10 million to keep Watson at their organization, even if he sits out, because of the caliber quarterback he is. They may want to spend the money on him and wait and see what will happen to him after the completion of the criminal investigations. However, as mentioned, the trade for Watson must be worth it for the Texans; they have the same capabilities as other teams in releasing him based on conduct detrimental to the league or a contractual clause in the event formal criminal indictments or charges are brought against him. 

What happens if Watson is criminally charged during the season? 

If Watson is criminally charged in the season, he will almost certainly be placed on the “Commissioners Exempt List” and will have to await the conclusion of his criminal proceedings as well as the NFL’s own investigation to see if he will be eligible to continue to play in the NFL. It is unclear what the franchise that he plays for will do if a criminal indictment or charge is brought upon Watson. They could keep him or terminate his contract under a moral clause, depending on the language of the contract.  A league suspension based on an NFL investigation is usually a baseline of six games for findings of sexual assault but aggravating or mitigating factors could make it more or less. However, that is for one offense. The league may add multiple suspensions if it finds sexual assault was committed against multiple people. A second offense results in banishment from the league. If the league finds sex assault did occur, it’s unclear if the league would consider the nearly two dozen allegations as a first time offense or a series of second plus offenses resulting in banishment.

Listen to more of Dash’s interview with Audacy’s Jonathan Zaslow here: